Britten's Children by John Bridcut

A generous account of Benjamin Britten's love affair with youth
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Two years ago, John Bridcut made a television documentary that sought to uncover the truth about Benjamin Britten and his boys. Peeling away decades of prurient innuendo, it was a delicately thought-provoking film, now complemented by this brilliant book. Britten's Children looks beyond the vexed question of whether the composer was a child molester to see how his obsession with childhood sustained his life and work.

Bridcut nevertheless tackles that question head-on. The case for the prosecution was made by Britten's one-time friend Eric Crozier: "Having been corrupted as a boy, he seemed to be under a compulsion to corrupt other small boys." Bridcut's conclusion is that, in his dealings with children, Britten was the ideal friend and collaborator: "Whatever shadows may have lurked in Britten's mind, his effect on these boys was benign, wholesome, and inspiring."

His route to this conclusion begins with Britten's identification with his 13-year-old self. Britten always used Letts Schoolboys' diaries, and in 1954 his details are meticulously filled out: height, weight, bicycle number, all appropriate to the age he gives, 13. In 1954 he was 40, at the height of his fame, but 13 was the age of the inner man, and its rituals and rhythms were perpetuated: the public-school food, the naked swims, the Molesworth slang, and above all the company he kept.

Britten was edgy with adults, but never with boys: he loved beating them at ping-pong and tennis, or driving them at speed through country lanes. When he found one with that magical combination of physical charm and artistic talent, he eagerly became his mentor. Michael Berkeley, Robert Saxton, Benjamin Zander, and David and Stuart Bedford are among the musicians who began their careers under his tutelage; so did the actor David Hemmings.

So infatuated was Britten with the latter that he created the character of Miles in The Turn of the Screw for him. And when Hemmings's voice broke in mid-aria while reprising that role in Paris, he was angrily cast into outer darkness.

Bridcut's delineation of that oft-repeated arc from new discovery, to reigning muse, to total oblivion when the bloom of youth was gone makes riveting reading. The other achievement of this gracefully written book is to reflect the reciprocity of this love: Britten's boys loved him back, for what he gave to each one for a few enchanted months.